Friday, July 19, 2013

On Coping with MS and the Death of Vaudeville

“All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy.” --Henny Youngman

It’s a great joke. It could have been written yesterday by an MS sufferer who is trying to live on Social Security Disability. Or it could have been an appeal by anyone who is part of the ninety-plus percent of this country, struggling to get by on the dwindling value of a paycheck, living in a house worth less than what is owed.

In fact, the joke is attributed to Henny Youngman, a Jewish comedian whose career bloomed during the early part of the 20th century. We baby boomers were the last generation to see him and his peers on television, mostly as Johnny Carson’s guests during the 60s and 70s when they were elderly, long after their meteoric careers had flourished, first in radio and movies, then as some of the pioneers of early television. Folks such as Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx. When they went, vaudeville died a second death.

Vaudevillian Jewish humor seems quaint now, couched in mockery of stereotypical hypochondriac mothers, chicken soup, Yiddish-speaking relatives who fractured the English language, and Rabbis who intoned the 600-plus Talmudic commandments. Quaint because European Jews were a large part of the immigrant population living in New York during WWI, prohibition, and the Great Depression, and their kids born on American soil grew up with one foot in the Old Ways and the other in American Protestant culture. Nowadays, Jews are fully assimilated. Jon Stewart, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen are comics by trade but their Jewishness isn’t implicit in their material, only in their bloodlines. Jon Stewart’s style seems to more closely resemble that of Bill Maher than of Woody Allen. If we dig deeper into their backgrounds we find further evidence of assimilation: Bill Maher is half Jewish on his mother’s side and Woody Allen has said that he does not consider his humor to be particularly Jewish.

All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy. Why do I love this joke in particular? Coping with MS and coping with the death of vaudeville seem to carry equal weight for me. My nostalgic lament for the loss of those particular vaudevillians may simply come from cherished memories of my impressionable childhood. Smart-assed kids like me loved a snappy comeback and these middle-aged Jewish men seemed to own a treasure trove of sarcastic witticisms. But it caused problems. This kind of humor is aggressive. Any girl who employs it is an aggressive female and therefore threatening. My sarcasm fell flat with men in particular, and didn’t go over well in general because I grew up in Toledo, not Brooklyn. Midwestern culture is not known for its sense of irony. During the pre-feminist era, a smart girl who was quick-witted and chose the most abrasive kind of humor was a triple threat. And I wasn’t doing it onstage; I wove it into conventional social exchanges where sarcasm is taboo.

All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy. It is a bit Jewish in structure and word choice, but not exclusively Jewish in tone or subject matter. Nor is it gauche mockery. I hadn’t heard this joke when I was a kid, but if I had, its meaning would have been lost on me. My fondness for this joke isn’t couched in nostalgia, it is resonant because of what I’m living now. Only a poor person could have written it. And put into its proper context, in the early 20th century, in New York City, it could only have been written by a Jewish immigrant. Henny Youngman emigrated from England and worked in a print shop in Brooklyn, writing jokes for Milton Berle. Youngman was initially an orchestra musician and a prolific gag writer before Berle encouraged him to perform on radio. His ear for word choice and for the rhythms of language enabled him to write effective one-liners delivered like machine-gun fire, punctuating strings of jokes with songs played on his violin. Youngman and Jack Benny both used the violin in their early careers, a throwback to the European tradition of educating children in the arts. Though Youngman’s parents encouraged his musical aspirations, he didn’t find his voice in music, he found it in writing. Music was my original vocation as well until I found my own voice in writing and abandoned the music all together.

Yet, such a connection doesn’t explain my affinity for this joke. It’s still fresh, still relevant. It always will be. One can imagine a poor immigrant standing at a street corner in New York, seeing prosperity all around him and realizing it is attainable, much more so than it could have been in the Old Country. But he also hears the narratives of our Protestant culture, in particular: Money can’t buy happiness. He can't help noting the happiness attached to all that prosperity, so he makes the appeal: All I ask is a chance to prove money can’t make me happy.

It is the anthem of any immigrant group new to this country. It is our founding principle and the heart of our constitution. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is deeply patriotic. It could be part of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for a chance to prove money can’t make them happy . . .

. . . along with the 98 percent who are already here, reaching out more desperately than ever for the American Dream. We will all do it together, we always have. This is why I love the joke, it has awakened my patriotism. I shall therefore petition to change the saying on the US one-cent piece from E pluribus unum to “the more, the merrier.”

I like it.


  1. Well taken!
    Henny was one of the masters I watched on the Tonight Show. A true classic who will never be out of style.

  2. Hi there. I really like your site. I am a writer who also has MS. I am putting together a poetry anthology by writers who have MS. All poems talk about the MS experience. Proceeds of this book will benefit the MS community in Dallas, TX, where I live. Would you be interested in submitting a poem? Please contact me at Thank you.
    Jennifer Evans